Saturday, November 23, 2013

Parashat Vayeishev – Talking to G-d

Once I was at the hairdresser with my mother. I don’t remember exactly when, but given that I haven’t gone to a “hairdresser” in years, I had to have been somewhere between 16 and 20. As the hairdresser was doing my hair, she and my mom were talking about religion. I was quiet so that I would remain still while my precious hair was under the scissors. At some point in the conversation, my mother told the hairdresser that I talked to G-d. The hairdresser said, “Well, I think we can all talk to G-d if we open up our hearts.” True. My mother responded, something to the effect of, “No, I think Elizabeth converses with G-d and knows more than she tells us.” Not true. I remained silent and never addressed this with my mom, until very recently. By now, she had forgotten about it and just kind of laughed it off, didn’t know what she had been thinking. I will never know where she got that idea from, or how long she held that belief about me.
Often in the Torah we do see one-on-one conversations between G-d and people. G-d spoke to our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and when we get to Exodus we’ll see G-d speaking to Moses, too. But G-d does not speak to Joseph. Perhaps Joseph speaks to G-d, though. The first mention of G-d in Joseph’s story is in chapter 39 of Genesis, when the Torah says, “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, Pharaoh's chamberlain, chief of the slaughterers, an Egyptian man, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and whatever he (Joseph) did the Lord made prosper in his hand.” The Tanhuma, a book of additional stories and commentaries on the Torah, adds that “the Lord was with him” means “the name of heaven was frequently in his mouth.”
Though the Lord is with him in Potiphar’s house, Joseph still ends up getting thrown in jail. But there, too, the Torah says, “the Lord is with him”. When in prison, he interprets the dreams of the royal cupbearer and baker, and he attributes the interpretations to G-d. But again, we are never shown G-d speaking to Joseph the way G-d did with Joseph’s father and grandfather and great grandfather, G-d never explicitly whispers dream meanings into Joseph’s ear. While, Abraham and Noah can be (and sometimes are) credited with being the world’s first faithful, because when G-d tells them to do something, they do it, no questions asked, I think Joseph’s faith can be a lot more meaningful to us in our modern day, when we know G-d does not speak to us the way G-d spoke to Noah and Abraham. As the hairdresser said, we can all talk to G-d if we just open up our hearts, we can have the kind of relationship Joseph has with G-d.
Like Joseph, we all have G-d-given talents. Like Joseph, those talents may not always be so easy to use or to get by with. They come with hardships; they don’t always make us popular or rich, or at least not right away. But when times are hard, even if it feels like G-d is not with you, if it feels like G-d has not made you to be perfect, if you are wondering why you keep doing something or feeling something or wanting something that does not seem to be beneficial to you now, do not stop dreaming. Do not stop talking to G-d. Joseph was unlucky at first. But he never lost faith. He believed in who he was and he believed that G-d was with him. Eventually his luck changed, and still he believed that G-d was with him all along. There is great comfort in talking to G-d, even if G-d never directly answers us. In life, there are hard times, when even our best traits will feel useless, but if you “think it, want it, dream it,” as Joseph did, “then it’s real. You are what you feel.” May you all find yourselves always open to a one-sided chat with G-d, may those chats give you comfort and strength in who you are, and may your dreams come true. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Parashat Vayishlach – Missing Frenemies

            I heard some very wise words not too long ago, passed on by a parent, though the words were actually from a clever child. The words of wisdom were, “Sometimes, you can miss someone even if they were mean to you.” We all have had experiences with people who were not nice to us. If you have not yet had that experience, you are very, very lucky, but believe me, your time will come. Now, sometimes, even when someone is bad to us, it’s hard to end that relationship. But sometimes, we manage to do so anyway, for our own good. Or sometimes, you may be separated from someone who was bad to you by happenstance, which can feel like a relief. Or sometimes, the leaving was the bad thing they did to you. But in all those cases, it is normal to still feel a loss. Even through all the harm they caused you, maybe they also showed great kindness at a time when you were in need, or maybe they are really fun sometimes, or any other number of reasons that make social interactions feel good.
            In the case of Esau and Jacob, the Torah shows only struggle. They are both mean to each other, and we see no proof that one was ever kind to the other in a time of need or that they ever had fun together. But it seems Esau still misses Jacob. After all Jacob did to him, he still wants to see him again. Of course, all the commentaries say that this is because Esau still wanted to kill Jacob, but the Torah just says Esau is coming, and bringing his whole camp, to meet Jacob and his whole camp. We know that Jacob is terrified and takes many precautions on the assumption that Esau is indeed coming to kill him, but we don’t see Esau’s intentions or preparations for the meeting. When they do meet, they embrace and cry, and it’s a very joyful reunion. Briefly. Then they go on their separate ways again. There is no intent to join camps, to spend extended periods of time together, they just want to see each other and move on.
            When it comes to missing people that were mean to you, family is a unique case. With most cases, you continue relationships with people who were mean to you, or miss them when they’re gone, because they had some redeeming qualities that kept you attached. With family, sometimes, just the fact that you are related is the redeeming quality. This is a really hard thing to admit, even abstractly, but I think it’s true that sometimes, family members who love each other, don’t always like each other. Jacob and Esau clearly don’t really like each other. They fought with one another their whole lives at home, and when they reunite as adults, they don’t seem keen to spend a lot of time together. But they do seem to love each other. Maybe it’s for the sake of their parents, or because they shared a womb, or just because of some biological pride in their genes that keeps them bound together, but they do. They missed each other. They embrace and cry. They make things right between them, and then they part ways again. Because loving and missing someone doesn’t necessarily mean that they belong back in your life.
            This is probably one of life’s harder lessons. Beside the fact that some people are mean and we don’t like them, there are also people who will be really mean and we do like them, for whatever reason: they’re nice sometimes, they’re funny, they take care of physical or material needs. Or sometimes we will find that the people we love just aren’t that likeable. And it may be healthy to separate yourselves from people like that. But it can be difficult, on practical and emotional levels, especially if it’s family, as with Jacob and Esau. May we find in ourselves the humility and forgiveness that Jacob and Esau are able to muster up for each other in this week’s parasha, but may also find the strength to know when it is time to separate again. And may we always find peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Parashat Vayetzei: Sister Wives

            This week’s parasha is the first ever episode of Sister Wives in the universe. Ok, so, I’ve never actually seen that show, but from what I know about television and the way women are portrayed in the media, I assume it’s really melodramatic and centers on the women’s insecurities and jealousies, and generally plays up an idea that women are crazy, obsessed with “their man” and always willing to stab each other in the back. In case you weren’t sure, this is not a fully accurate portrayal of women. However, the picture we get of Sister Wives Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah is not much different. Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s real wives, are sisters, and beside them there are two handmaidens Jacob takes as secondary wives. There is one – one! – very nice ancient rabbinic midrash that shows love and care between the sisters: Jacob, knowing that Laban is a trickster, gives Rachel some sort of token, so that when she comes to him in her wedding veil, he will know for sure that it is her. When Rachel sees that Laban is taking Leah to marry Jacob, and the Midrash gives no indication that Rachel was really in on this trick, rather than being angry or jealous, she is concerned that Jacob will publicly shame her sister. So, she gives the token to her sister, so that Jacob would still think that it is Rachel under the veil, and Leah may be spared some humiliation. However, other than this Midrash, most of the text and traditional commentaries show that the image of women in media have not changed much in the last couple thousand years.
            I know last week I spoke about looking at the text for what it is, and not necessarily accepting the ancient rabbis’ interpretations at face value, but sometimes the text, as it is, is uncomfortable. But we learn from Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, who seems quite wise in spite of his silly name, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” And of course, the “it” here, is the Torah. The Torah teaches everything, if we know how to look at it, and there are no parts of the Torah without value, no matter how obscure the value may seem at first glance.
            One value learned in this Torah portion is how multi-faceted people can be. The women are shown to have seemingly petty jealousies with one another over a man, but this is a world where a woman’s status was determined by how many sons she could give to her husband. Rachel and Leah seem to have clear moments of cleverness, bargaining with each other, making deals about Jacob without his input, negotiating their fates with each other and with G-d. This is actually one of the closest things to feminism the Torah will show us. Many women in the Torah are very one-dimensional, but in this parasha, they are the stars. Meanwhile, Jacob the trickster learns what it is like to be tricked. After pretending to be Esau, he now has to deal with the fallout of Leah pretending to be Rachel. We see him grow up a little. It turns out, tricky Jacob who lied and stole to get a blessing and birthright from his father, actually does have a great work ethic. He takes great care of Laban’s sheep and goats, works hard for many years, and is a successful man. Although he clearly doesn’t love Leah, he seems to do right by her, and that’s how a lot of marriages were back then. So we see that even our patriarchs and matriarchs, the righteous ones, were not perfect. We all have moments where we are good, smart, hard-working, and loving people. But we also do all have moments were we are jealous, irrational, sneaky liars. This is life. Although at first glance it might be frustrating that our supposed role models of the Bible are not perfect, it’s also kind of comforting. We don’t have some ridiculous standard to hold ourselves up to. We just have to be the best we can be. G-d trusted Jacob to become Israel despite the fact that he was a sneaky liar, and G-d trusted Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah to raise the twelve tribes of Israel despite being jealous and petty. Who knows what G-d may trust in us?        

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Parashat Toldot - Esau as Rubeus Hagrid

            This week’s Torah portion is Toldot. Jacob and Esau, twins, are born. They struggle with each other in Rebecca's womb, and then after they are born, they struggle with each other in life. Jacob is portrayed as a sweet mama’s boy who stays home and helps with the cooking. Esau, on the other hand, gets a pretty bad rep from our ancient rabbis, a reputation which has carried on to today. There are many midrashim and commentaries that claim Esau was a murderer, an arrogant brute of a man, and that he was obviously not worthy of the blessing or birthright of his father. However, the text does not show this. The Torah itself shows us that Esau is born with a ruddy complexion, which the rabbis interpret as a sign that he has or will have blood on his hands. But it’s just his skin! No blood. Except maybe the blood of the animals he hunts, which again the rabbis point to as a sign of some sort of cruelty. But Isaac loves to eat meat, so why shouldn’t his son learn to love and be good at providing it?
            When Esau learns that his blessing has been given to his brother, his first thought is not immediately to harm Jacob. He first weeps in anguish, in bitterness, and begs his father to bless him too. Isaac explains the blessing has already been given to Jacob, and Esau cries out, “Have you only one blessing? Bless me too, Father!” But Isaac has nothing left to give him. He is maybe out of line when he does, at the end of this scene, threaten to kill his brother, but he never really makes an attempt to do so. Jacob runs away, and Esau does not run after him, and when they are reunited they are both very gracious to each other. Maybe Esau never really meant he was actually going to kill his brother, but meant it more like, “Grrr I’m gonna kill you,” as many people today might say to their loved ones when they’re being obnoxious.
While there are layers of rabbis from ancient to medieval times describing all the sins and evil qualities of Esau, those qualities just aren’t found in the Torah itself. The Torah itself shows us a man, maybe not a man with the best foresight or intuition or not a man who's great a controlling his emotions, but still not an evil man. I see a sad, scared man, betrayed by his own family. Maybe one takeaway from this Torah portion is to not judge a book by its cover, or an argument from one side. Esau is a hairy, reddish colored hunter, and I think often depicted as larger than Jacob, although the Torah doesn’t specify size. You might have been told, as many are, that Esau was a brutish man, villainous from the start. That sounds like a guy any of us would run away from, too, probably.
 But actually, it sounds more like Esau and Rubeus Hagrid, a character from the Harry Potter series, might be basically the same person. Many Hogwarts students, as well as adults, dislike or are afraid of Hagrid because he is large, hairy, and has a ruddy complexion. He knows his way around the scary and ominous Forbidden Forest, is handy with a weapon, and loves dangerous animals. Rumors fly around about him that indicate what a ferocious beast of half-giant he is, and many keep their distance. In reality, he is a sweet soul, kind of alone in the world, just trying to live his life. As we go on our way, we may or we may not encounter Hagrids and Esaus, exactly. But we will probably encounter people that are different and outcast in other ways. They may not be hairy and have red skin, but maybe they do look different or “funny” in other ways. They may not have reputations for being killers, but maybe other nasty rumors are spread about them. When we come across these people, let us emulate Harry, Hermione, and Ron, rather than our own ancient rabbis in how we deal with them. Let us be kind, and get to know people for who they really are, not for what they look like or what others may say they really are. And may we show all our fellow humans kindness. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.